Once an Eagle

Once an Eagle is a 1968 war novel by American author Anton Myrer. A #1 New York Times Bestseller, Once an Eagle has been a favorite of American military men and women since its writing.[1] The novel tells the story of Sam Damon, career Army officer, from his initial enlistment to his rise to general officer rank. Myrer wrote his novel to warn against ambition without principle and the military-industrial complex. Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale are the vehicles for this warning. Damon is an honorable soldier who rises in rank by success in field command. He is a soldier of character with his men's welfare in mind. Massengale has no honor and rises in rank through staff positions by cunning and political connections. He is driven by lust for power and cares nothing for the welfare of soldiers. A television mini-series based on the book was aired on NBC in 1976, with actor Sam Elliott portraying Sam Damon. The book appears on the Commandant's required reading list for all First Lieutenants in the United States Marine Corps, and frequently serves as a text for cadets in leadership classes at West Point.

Once an Eagle
Cover to HarperTorch paperback edition (2001)
AuthorAnton Myrer
CountryUnited States
GenreWar novel
PublisherHolt, Rinehart, and Winston
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)


Book 1: Orchard

This section covers the young Sam Damon's formative years in small-town Nebraska, during which he earns his nickname "The Night Clerk". After being put on a wait list to attend West Point, Sam decides to enlist in the Army. This section contains Damon's experiences in basic training and deployment south of the border during the Mexican expedition, though he sees no combat.

Book 2: Wheat

This finds Damon's service in World War I, including his battlefield commission and actions, lead to his award of the Medal of Honor. Sam rises to the rank of Major before the war ends, and falls in love with General Caldwell's daughter. They start their Army career together at Fort Hardee, a desolate fort that leaves Sam less than thrilled and that Tommy despises.

Book 3: Chaparral

This section covers the time between the two world wars, including Sam's interactions with Massengale, Ben Krisler, and the birth of the Damons' children, Donny and Peg, as the family move from one military outpost to another, including a stint in the Philippines.

Book 4: Liana

This section covers World War II and Damon's promotion to division commander, culminating in the disastrous Operation Palladium commanded by Corps Commander General Massengale. This interlude features the death of Krisler during Palladium, as Damon is severely wounded.

Book 5: Delta

The final book finds Sam Damon once again in Southeast Asia, this time as an adviser to a potential conflict in Khotiane, an allegorical name for Vietnam. He is battling General Massengale's desire to increase American participation, which Damon views as calamitous.


  • Sam Damon (Protagonist. Honorable, forthright officer dedicated to the Army and his soldiers)
  • Courtney Massengale (Antagonist. Conniver and malefactor, using family political connections to move up the ranks)
  • Tommy Caldwell Damon (Sam Damon's Wife, Daughter of General George Caldwell)
  • General George Caldwell (Sam Damon's Commanding Officer during World War I, Father of Tommy Caldwell Damon)
  • Jack Devlin (Sam's best friend during World War I)
  • Ben Krisler (Sam's best friend during the interwar years and World War II)
  • Donny Damon (Sam and Tommy's son)
  • Emily Massengale (Courtney's wife)

Literary significance

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf described Once an Eagle as "[a] classic novel of war and warriors. Sam Damon doesn't preach, he lives his values and they are universal, not only military."

In 1997 the United States Army War College Foundation published an edition with a foreword by General John William Vessey, Jr. which read "It has been over thirty years since Anton Myrer, a former Marine enlisted man, began the exhaustive and painstaking research that produced this classic novel of soldiers and soldiering. Once an Eagle ranks with Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front as time tested epics of war and warriors. The spirit, the heart and, yes, the soul of the officer corps is captured, as are the intangible ambiance and nuances that make up the life of the American soldier and his family. It is for these reasons and more that the Army War College Foundation has undertaken to republish Anton Myrer’s masterpiece."[2]

General Charles C. Krulak, the commandant of the US Marine Corps, wrote "Once an Eagle has more to teach about leadership – whether it is in the boardroom or on the battlefield – than a score of modern-day management texts. It is a primer that lays out, through the lives of its two main characters, lessons on how and how not to lead."[2]

Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, the commandant of the US Army War College in 1997 wrote on the book's fly-leaf "Once an Eagle has been the literary moral compass for me and my family of soldiers for more than two generations. Its ethical message is as fresh and relevant today as it was when Anton Myrer wrote it during the war in Vietnam."[2] In an interview with Foreign Policy in 2013 however, Scales claimed that the novel's effects damaged the Army's officer corps:

"Today’s generation has spent a great deal of time in the field and very little in the classroom or on the staff. Many are unduly contemptuous about serving in the purgatory of the Washington bureaucracy and treat staff time as an unwelcome interlude between assignments in the field. Perhaps the pull of the Sam track has made too many commanders out of officers whose place is on a staff, and too few brilliant staff officers who choose to leave right in the midst of their most productive years because they failed to make the cut for the next command."[3]

The book has also been on the Army Chief of Staff's recommended reading list for professional development, and is currently on the Marine Corps Commandant's recommended reading and Air Force Chief of Staff's reading list as well.


In 1976, NBC created a nine-hour American television mini-series, likewise titled Once An Eagle, based on the book and directed by Richard Michaels and E.W. Swackhamer. The picture was written by Peter S. Fischer and starred Sam Elliott as Damon, with Cliff Potts portraying Courtney Massengale. The first and last installments of the seven-part series broadcast two hours each, while the interim episodes each broadcast for 60 minutes.[4] The mini-series concerns the thirty year careers of two military men, from the outbreak of World War I to the aftermath of World War II.

Further reading

  • Hebert, Thomas W. Once An Eagle: A Reader's Companion. O-A-E Enterprises, 2006. ISBN 0-61-518709-9.
  • Hebert, Thomas W. Once An Eagle: Notes on Once An Eagle. O-A-E Enterprises, 2008.


  1. "Becker, Elizabeth, "Military Goes by the Book, but It's a Novel", New York Times, August 16, 1999". The New York Times. August 16, 1999.
  2. Robert Stone (October 5, 2000). "Battle Hymn of the Republic". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved May 18, 2014.
  3. Ricks, Thomas A. (18 December 2013). "O! The damage 'Once an Eagle' has done to my Army — and yes, it is partly my fault". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 30 October 2019.
  4. Once an Eagle on IMDb.
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